Pursued By A Bear: “Am I too old to become a playwright?”

Pursued By A Bear is our new advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.    

“I’m leaving the ‘young person’ bracket later this year, and I feel like a lot of doors are going to be closed to me. Should I be worried about getting older, and what are your top tips for writers who no longer qualify for all the youth-centric schemes?”

Yes you should be worried about getting older. People can reel off all the supposed positives about aging they want but the undeniable truth is that it’s akin to being chained to an ascending escalator with a malnourished shark at the top.

I can understand how you feel though. You might find this hard to believe given the youthful exuberance of my writing, but I myself recently turned thirty.

As assisted suicide is not yet legal I’ve found myself with no option but to keep forging on, with nothing but regrets and arthritis to cling to now that I can no longer engage in the pastimes of my youth; bare-knuckle boxing, base-jumping and spearing lobsters on the ocean floor with a sharpened stick.

It’s true, according to the arbitrary brackets designated by some ageist deities on the untouchable heights of theatre Olympus, we are no longer ‘young people’.

So we must be old, right? Old hat, irrelevant, over the hill, past it. Our best years are behind us. We are now in the winter of life.

It’s a sad fact that many doors will be closed to us.

The doors of student nightclubs.

The doors to Taylor Swift’s dressing room.

The doors to the Australian department of immigration.

But on the plus side, other doors will open.

The doors to assisted living homes.

The doors to the Orthopaedic ward of our local hospital.

And soon enough, those little doors at the end of the conveyor belt in the crematorium.

People say that youth is wasted on the young. I didn’t agree with them before, but now that I’ve crossed the line from young person to time-worn relic of a bygone era, I think they’re entirely right.

After turning thirty back in May I can reflect on things I did in my wayward youth with the benefit of hindsight. I now realise that when I was young, I was a total moron.

In February, for example, I opened a bottle of chocolate milk in a moving car and spilled the entire thing down my shirt.

In March, I ordered takeaway from Nandos and didn’t look in the bag until I got home, and it was too late to complain about the absence of spicy rice.

In April, I used a company credit card to buy every Nicolas Cage film in existence, lost my job and got kicked out of the house by my wife.

But since my birthday in May when I crossed that pivotal threshold and became ancient I have the benefit of centuries of wisdom to help me avoid making such stupid, youthful mistakes.

I also know a lot more stuff.

I know you shouldn’t eat cheese before bed.

I know the names of different birds.

I know that manners cost nothing.

I know that when cows sit down it’s going to rain.

I know how to cook liver and onions.

And I know that being old sucks.

But I also know that if you want to be a writer, age isn’t such a big deal. It does seem unfair that there are so many great writing schemes around that we no longer qualify for because we’re almost dead, but let’s look at this from another angle.

Why are there so many great schemes aimed at helping young writers?

Because it’s difficult for young writers to get their work produced.

And why is it difficult for young writers to get produced?

Because theatres are too busy putting on plays by older, more established writers.

Using the ever-reliable and accurate font of information that is Wikipedia let’s take a look at the ages of some successful contemporary playwrights:

Caryl Churchill, seventy seven years old and still going strong.

Roy Williams, forty seven.

Jez Butterworth, forty six.

Simon Stephens, forty four.

Bola Agbaje, thirty four.

Is there life beyond thirty for a playwright? I think so.

What you need to keep telling yourself is that as you get older you will also get less stupid (barring any serious head injuries). You’ll have more experience to draw from, you’ll gain a deeper perspective on life and you will have spent more time honing your craft.

Don’t forget that most young writers’ schemes are aimed at developing talent, not necessarily discovering it. If you’ve already been seriously pursuing a career as a writer, you’ve probably done a lot of development for yourself.

If you feel you still need guidance in your development there are tons of writing groups out there. Find one that suits your needs and start attending regularly. The best thing about most young writers’ schemes is being able to get feedback on your work from someone with industry experience. So find a writing group that encourages constructive feedback, preferably alongside opportunities to hear readings of your work.

Seeing your work staged is another crucial step in your development. Keep an eye out for scratch nights and open submissions for short plays. These are great opportunities to see how an audience (however small) reacts to your work. The investment of time required is generally small and there are normally tight deadlines which will really motivate you to get stuck in.

I was lucky enough to get onto a young writers’ scheme many moons ago. I was a sprightly young man then, it was before my first knee replacement surgery, at a time when I still had all my own teeth. I remember that Dennis Kelly came in to talk to us and I was amazed to learn that he didn’t start writing seriously until he reached the epic milestone of thirty years old.

At the time I remember thinking that thirty was about a week away from death.

According to Wikipedia, Kelly is still alive and well.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that age isn’t so much of an issue if you want to be a writer. If you had dreams of pursuing a gold medal in Olympic Taekwondo at the age of thirty it would be a different story.

As long as you’re physically and mentally able to write, you still have a chance to make a name for yourself. In fact, even after death it remains a very slight possibility, look at the posthumous success of Stieg Larsson’s novels.

So crack on, develop yourself. And if you’re finding it too much of a struggle or you misplace your bifocals, just use a bigger font.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

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2 thoughts on “Pursued By A Bear: “Am I too old to become a playwright?””

  1. Bill Rosenfield

    You’re not wrong, but there’s an important point that someone north of fifty should point out to you. By and large the people that are the play readers at the various theatres are the low people on the totem pole – young people just starting out who are given the sludge pile to read. And young people just starting out don’t really relate to many of the themes and thoughts that older playwrights write about. So as you mature and gain the wisdom of the ages and they gets reflected in your writing, unless you have achieved a certain reputation already in the theatre community, your play is going to be read and evaluated by someone from a different generation who doesn’t yet possess the wisdom that only age can bring. I speak from experience. When I was in my twenties I worked in the literary department of a major theatre and the scripts which excited us were those which were those which gave us a sense of discovery and they tended to be young writers . The plays from older and somewhat established writers were treated with a certain level of yawning respect. I’m not saying there’s no hope for older writers just starting out, but I will say there’s a different sort of uphill battle to get one’s work read with an appropriate attitude.

  2. We got this brilliant comment by email from one of our readers: “My first play will be staged at Bath Festival Fringe on 27th & 30th May at the Mission Theatre. I am 72 and still don’t know what to be when I grow up!”

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